After speaking at the Kimberly and Pilbara Cattlemen's Association this month and spending a week travelling in the Pilbara region, it has been interesting to get the Western Australian perspective on the live cattle trade.
WA plays a large role in Australia's live cattle exports.
Over the past three years (2016-18), the average number of live cattle departing WA ports on an annual basis has been 288,540 head.
Over the same period, the average annual exports from Queensland ports was 251,114 head.
The origin of WA live export numbers have been evenly split between the northern ports (Wyndham, Broome, Port Headland, and Geraldton) and the southern port of Fremantle.
With Indonesia a closely located to the state, this country represents the largest market, taking close to half the WA live cattle exports.
Like many areas of eastern Australia, WA has been dry for most of 2019 and the Kimberly and Pilbara are no exception. A large number of stock have been sold off farms.
While live export numbers are not up by a huge amount - volumes for the first nine months of 2019 increased by seven per cent - this is not unusual unless the herd was expanding.
However, cattle slaughter for WA is up 12 per cent (compared with national slaughter up by seven per cent), reflective of herd liquidation and cows being culled. Cow slaughter for the first nine months is up 25 per cent.
This reduction in breeding herd, like that happening in other areas across Australia, will have a lasting impact on future production and therefore live exports from the different areas across northern Australia.
As a result, we are seeing a shift in relative proportions of cattle sent from the different regions.
With limitations of cattle across northern Australia, Queensland - which has greater access to cattle - has led the growth in live cattle exports this year.
So far in 2019 (year to September), live cattle exports out of Queensland are up 48 per cent while exports from the NT are down 16 per cent.
We have also seen the numbers of cattle exported out of southern Queensland ports (Alma and Brisbane) increase 210 percent for the first nine months of 2019, possibly reflecting the fact cattle are having to be sourced from more southern areas.
This redistribution will have implications for all in the industry. With larger cattle supplies in eastern states, exporters and ships will be more focused on those areas.
Over the past 12 months, not only are there increased cattle leaving eastern states, but the average number of cattle per shipment leaving Townsville has generally been higher than Darwin numbers.
This suggests more of the larger ships are being directed to the eastern ports.
This will have implications for those aggregating numbers for shipments and also impact local infrastructure dealing with these numbers.
Seasonal conditions will change and numbers in the north will rebuild to supply more cattle for live exports.
However, the current seasonal conditions that are pushing live cattle trade into more eastern and southern markets have the potential to open up new options for producers further south.
- Angus Gidley-Baird is a senior analyst with Rabobank